BREAKING: Madison abuzz as new ordinance legalizes bee-keeping

Until now, beekeeping in Madison was technically illegal. Nevertheless, dozens in the city have tried to keep their bees under the radar.

According to Matt Tucker, the zoning administrator for the City of Madison, keeping bees has been like stacking firewood on your property. The city does not condone the activity, but it only becomes an issue if the neighbors complain.

But a new ordinance, passed on Feb. 28, permits, even encourages, Madison residents to keep bees as part of an effort to promote local, urban agriculture.

Officially called Section 9.53, the change comes as an amendment to chapter 28 of the Madison General Ordinances of the conservancy, agriculture, and residential districts.

Proponents see the ordinance as part of a broader urban farming movement.

“There is a movement in this country and abroad, a grassroots recognition of the benefits of urban agriculture,” explained Tucker. “It’s a big buzz concept in our contemporary society. It’s new farming.”

Tucker and Alder Satya Rhodes-Conway began working on the beekeeping ordinance in May 2011, although neither keeps bees themselves.

“I think it’s important, where people are interested, to allow them to grow their own food, or have access to locally grown food,” said Rhodes-Conway. “That can be done in an urban context.”

The ordinance requires that hives remain three feet from property lines, 10 feet from public sidewalks, and 25 feet from the neighbors’ primary building. Keepers must maintain a source of water for the bees and acquire a beekeeping license from the city. The licenses cost $10.

Tucker worked with the Dane County Beekeepers Association (DCBA) in drafting the ordinance, adopting many of their suggestions in the final document. Keepers can maintain up to six hives on one property, but no hive can exceed 20 square feet.

Regulations also specify location and height of “flyway barriers,” which force bees to fly up and away when they leave the hive, rather than drift into nearby yards.

An educational website will also be set up to encourage beekeeping and inform new hobbyists of relevant regulations.

While the new changes encourage beekeeping, Tucker made sure to take non-beekeepers’ concerns into account. The ordinance maintains a 25 foot requirement between hives and neighboring houses, despite opposition on this point by the DCBA. This is to keep neighbors happy.

“We needed to calm people’s fears about bees up front,” said Tucker. “We wanted to be sure that introducing bees wouldn’t have adverse effects on the neighboring property.”

Some objections to beekeeping stem from fears of stinging insects, although honeybees are considered non-aggressive. They seek only nectar from plants, and sting only when threatened. The majority of a hive remains to care for larvae and create honey, while about a third of the bees will fly as far as two miles to collect nectar.

In preparation for the ordinance, Tucker and Rhodes-Conway reviewed beekeeping codes from Milwaukee, New York City, and Vancouver, among others. Tucker met with entomologists from UW-Madison, keepers of the hive at the Vilas Zoo, and Dane County Animal Control to understand honeybee behavior.

The first draft, presented to the city in October 2011, met with significant criticism from the DCBA and city planners. It required larger distances between hives and property lines or sidewalks, and capped hive capacity at 10 square feet. Many hopeful beekeepers would not have been able to comply with the originally drafted requirements, especially on the smaller residential plots of the isthmus neighborhoods.

“We admittedly had too rigorous of a form,” said Tucker.

The DCBA stepped in to suggest changes to the code. They recommended parameters that would allow residents on smaller isthmus plots to keep bees, while also taking neighbor’s concerns into consideration.

Bees’ interest in flowers contributes to the local ecosystem, because they serve as docile pollinators for the area around the hive. They also contribute to local agriculture by creating their own crop of local food – honey.

The code’s express support of urban agriculture and generous guidelines are considered progressive by beekeepers and city workers alike.

“There’s no city that has as generous an ordinance as we’re going to have,” said Jeanne Hansen, the instructor of local beekeeping classes. “This ordinance will be used as a prototype by bee clubs and beekeepers from here to breakfast.”

The ordinance is good news to honeybee populations too, as hives suffer from numerous threats worldwide. The number of honeybees throughout the world dropped dramatically in the last several years.

Now that bees have support to thrive in Madison, beekeepers, honey eaters, and urban agriculture enthusiasts look forward to rearing them legally.

Local beekeeper and DCBA member, Mike Gourlie, worked closely with Tucker on the ordinance. He appreciates the way the city carefully considered the Association’s perspective.

“I take my beekeeping hat and my beekeeping veil off to the city of Madison for the job they did on this,” said Gourlie.